The Bank Ponzi Scheme


Every six months the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) publishes a document titled the Financial Stability Report . In the December 2011 report, it pointed out that at 55 per cent, loans to the power sector constituted a major part of the lending to the infrastructure sector. It further said that restructured loans in the power sector were on their way up.

Restructured loans are essentially loans where the borrower has been given a moratorium during which he does not have to repay the principal amount. In some cases, even the interest need not be paid. In some other cases, the tenure of the loan has been increased.

This was nearly five and a half years back, and the first time the RBI admitted that there was a problem in the bank lending to the power sector. In the December 2012 report, the RBI said: “There are also early signs of corporate leverage rising among the several industrial groups with large exposure to infrastructure sectors like power.”

When translated into simple English this basically means that many big industrial groups which had taken on loans to finance power projects had borrowed more money than they would be in a position to repay.

In the years to come by, other sectors along with the power sector also became a part of the RBI commentary on loans which were likely not to be repaid in the future. In the June 2013 report, the central bank said: “Within the industrial sector, a few sub-sectors, namely; Iron & Steel, Textile, Infrastructure, Power generation and Telecommunications; have become a cause of concern.”

In the December 2013 report, the RBI said: “There are five sectors, namely, Infrastructure [of which power is a part], Iron & Steel, Textiles, Aviation and Mining which have high level of stressed advances. At system level, these five sectors together contribute around 24 percent of total advances of scheduled commercial banks, and account for around 51 per cent of their total stressed advances.”

Dear Reader, the point I am trying to make here is that the RBI knew about a crisis brewing in the industrial sector as a whole, and power and steel sector in particular, for a while. In fact, in the June 2015 report, the RBI pointed out: “the debt servicing ability of power generation companies [which are a part of the infrastructure sector] in the near term may continue to remain weak given the high leverage and weak cash flows.”

The funny thing is that while the RBI was putting out these warnings, the banks were simply ignoring them and lending more to these sectors. Between July 2014 and July 2015, banks gave out Rs 86,500 crore, or 71.5 per cent, of the Rs. 1,20,900 crore that they had lent to industry to the two most troubled sectors, namely, power and iron and steel.

What was happening here? The banks were giving new loans to the troubled companies who were not in a position to repay their debt. These new loans were being used by companies to pay off their old loans. A perfect Ponzi scheme if ever there was one. If the banks hadn’t given fresh loans, many of the companies in the power and the iron and steel sectors would have defaulted on their loans.

Hence, the banks gave these companies fresh loans in order to ensure that their loans didn’t turn into bad loans, and so, in the process, they managed to kick the can down the road. In the process, the loans outstanding to these companies grew and if they were not in a position to repay their loans 2-3 years back, there is no way they would be in a position to repay their loan now.

Many of these projects, as Raghuram Rajan put it in a November 2014 speech, “were structured up front with too little equity, sometimes borrowed by the promoter from elsewhere. And some promoters find ways to take out the equity as soon as the project gets going, so there really is no cushion when bad times hit.”

The corporates brought in too little of their own money into the project, and banks ended up over lending. Over lending also happened because many promoters in these sectors were basically crony capitalists close to politicians to whom banks couldn’t say no to.

Over and above this, the steel producers had to face falling steel prices as China dumped steel internationally. In case of power producers, plant load factors (actual electricity being produced as a proportion of total capacity) fell. Along with this, the spot prices of electricity also fell. This did not allow these companies to set high tariffs for power, required for them to generate enough money to repay loans.

All these reasons basically led to the Indian banks ending up in a mess, on the loans it gave to power and iron and steel prices.

The RBI has now put 12 stressed loan cases under the Insolvency Bankruptcy Code, in the hope of recovering bad loans from these companies. Not surprisingly, steel companies dominate the list.

The column originally appeared in the Daily News and Analysis on June 23, 2017.


The Banking Ordinance is no magic pill for ailing banks


Recently, the government promulgated the Banking Regulation(Amendment) Ordinance, 2017, to tackle the huge amount of bad loans that have accumulated in the Indian banking system in general and the government owned public sector banks in particular. Bad loans are essentially loans in which the repayment from a borrower has been due for 90 days or more.

This Ordinance is now being looked at the magic pill which will cure the problems of Indian banks. Will it?

The Ordinance essentially gives power to the Reserve Bank of India(RBI) to give directions to banks for the resolutions of bad loans from time to time. It also allows the Indian central bank to appoint committees or authorities to advise banks on resolution of stressed assets.

The basic assumption that the Ordinance seems to make is that the RBI knows more about banking than the banks themselves. This doesn’t make much sense for the simple reason that if the RBI was better at banking than the banks themselves, it would have been able to identify the start of the bad loans problem as far back as 2011, which it didn’t.

Over and above this, this is not the first time that Indian banks have landed in trouble because of bad loans. They had landed up in a similar situation in the early 1980s and the early 2000s as well, and the RBI hadn’t been able to do much about it.

In fact, at the level of banks, many banks have been more interested in postponing the recognition of the problem of bad loans. This basically means they haven’t been recognising bad loans as bad loans. One way of doing this is by restructuring the loan and allowing the borrower a moratorium during which he does not have to repay the principal amount of the loan. In some cases, even the interest need not be paid. In some other cases, the tenure of the loan has been increased. In many cases this simply means just pushing the can down the road by not recognising a bad loan as a bad loan.

Why have banks been doing this? The Economic Survey gives us multiple reasons for the same. Large debtors have borrowed from many banks and these banks need to coordinate among themselves, and that hasn’t happened. At public sector banks recognising a bad loan as a bad loan and writing it off, can attract the attention of the investigative agencies.

Also, no public sector banker in his right mind would want to negotiate a settlement with the borrower who may not be able to repay the entire loan, but he may be in a position to repay a part of the loan. As the Economic Survey points out: “If PSU banks grant large debt reductions, this could attract the attention of the investigative agencies”. What makes this even more difficult is the fact that some of defaulters have been regular defaulters over the decades, and who are close to politicians across parties.

Hence, bankers have just been happy restructuring a loan and pushing the can down the road.

Over and above this, writing off bad loans once they haven’t been repaid for a while, leads to the banks needing more capital to continue to be in business. In case of public sector banks this means the government having to allocate more money towards recapitalisation of banks. There is a limit to that as well.

Also, a bigger problem which the Economic Survey does not talk about is the fact that the rate of recovery of bad loans has gone down dramatically over the years. In 2013-2014, the rate of recovery was at 18.8 per cent. By 2015-2016, this had fallen to 10.3 per cent. Hence, banks were only recovering around Rs 10 out of the every Rs 100 of bad loans defaulted on by borrowers. This is clear reflection of the weak institutional mechanisms in India, which cannot change overnight.

Also, many of the companies that have taken on large loans are no longer in a position to repay. As the Economic Survey points out: “Cash flows in the large stressed companies have been deteriorating over the past few years, to the point where debt reductions of more than 50 percent will often be needed to restore viability. The only alternative would be to convert debt to equity, take over the companies, and then sell them at a loss.”

The first problem here will be that many businessmen are very close to politicians.
Hence taking over companies won’t be easy. Over and above this, it will require the government and the public sector banks, working with the mindset of a profit motive, like a private equity or a venture capital fund. And that is easier said than done.

The column originally appeared in the Daily News and Analysis on May 22, 2017.

The Clean Up of Public Sector Banks is On, but the Basic Problem Still Remains


Earlier this week, the Reserve Bank of India(RBI) released the biannual Financial Stability Report. And this is how the most important paragraph of the report reads: “The gross non-performing advances (GNPAs) of SCBs sharply increased to 7.6 per cent of gross advances from 5.1 per cent between September 2015 and March 2016 after the asset quality review (AQR). A simultaneous sharp reduction in restructured standard advances ratio from 6.2 per cent to 3.9 per cent during the same period resulted in the overall stressed advances ratio rising marginally to 11.5 per cent from 11.3 per cent during the period. PSBs continued to hold the highest level of stressed advances ratio at 14.5 per cent, whereas, both private sector banks (PVBs) and foreign banks (FBs), recorded stressed advances ratio at 4.5 per cent.”

What does this mean? As on March 31, 2016, the gross non-performing advances (or bad loans) of banks stood at 7.6% of the loans that they have given out. This figure had stood at 5.1% as on September 30, 2016. It had stood at 4.6% as on March 31, 2015.

This basically means that between March last year and March this year, the bad loans of banks have gone up by 300 basis points. One basis point is one hundredth of a percentage. Between September 2015 and March 2016, the bad loans of banks have gone by 250 basis points.

Nevertheless, this is good news. But how can bad loans of banks going up be good news?  It is good news because the banks (particularly public sector banks) are finally getting around to recognising bad loans as bad loans. Up until now, they were basically postponing the recognition of bad loans as bad loans by passing them as restructured loans.

A restructured loan essentially implies that the borrower has been given a moratorium during which he does not have to repay the principal amount. In some cases, even the interest need not be paid. In some other cases, the tenure of the loan has been increased.

This is how banks had been helping many borrowers who were no longer in a position to repay the loans they had taken on. In many cases, restructuring was just an exercise to postpone the recognition of bad loans. Even after the loans were restructured many borrowers, were not in a position to repay their loans.

This becomes clear from looking at the stressed advances ratio of the banks. The stressed advances figure is obtained by adding the total bad loans to the restructured assets. Over the last few years, the stressed advances ratio of banks has gone up at a rapid rate, as banks restructured loans at a rapid pace.

This has now stopped. The restructured asset of banks as on March 31, 2016, fell to 3.9% of loans. In September 2015, it had stood at 6.2% of total advances. This basically means that the strategy of banks to postpone recognition of bank loans by passing them off as restructured assets has come to an end. Given this, the overall stressed assets ratio of banks as on March 31, 2016, stood at 11.5%, against 11.3% as on September 30, 2015.

A stressed asset ratio of 11.5% was basically obtained by adding bad loans of 7.6% to restructured assets of 3.9%. In September 2015, the restructured assets had stood at 6.2% whereas the bad loans had stood at 5.1%, leading to a stressed assets ratio of 11.3%.

What this tells us is that between September 2015 and March 2016, the stressed assets ratio has gone up by just 20 basis points from 11.3% to 11.5%. Indeed, this is good news for the simple reason that banks are now being forced to recognise bad loans as bad loans and not pass them of as restructured assets like they were doing earlier.

This is a huge feather in the cap of both the Reserve Bank of India as well as the Narendra Modi government. The basic problem is with public sector banks which gave out loans in the past primarily to many crony capitalists, which these borrowers are now not in a position to repay.

The stressed asset ratio of public sector banks as on March 31, 2016, stood at 14.5%. As on September 30, 2015, the ratio had stood at 14.1%. The stressed asset ratio of public sector banks is now going up at a slower rate than it was in the past, as can be seen from the accompanying table.


March 31, 201614.50%
September 30, 201514.10%
March 31, 201513.50%
September 30, 201412.90%
March 31, 201411.70%
September 30, 201312.30%
March 31, 201310.90%


What this means is that public sector banks are cleaning up their act by recognising more and more bad loans. This wasn’t happening in the past. Now it is important that they go after the borrowers (especially the larger ones) and recover as much of the loans as they can. The more the loans they can recover, the lesser will be the capital that the government will have to put into these banks, to get them up and running again.

Also, it is important to point out that this cleaning up has been possible because of the asset quality review initiated by the Rajan led RBI. The RBI asset quality review covered 36 banks (including all public sector banks). This review accounted for 93% of the total lending carried out by the scheduled commercial banks.

As the RBI Financial Stability Report points out: “The exercise sought to validate objective compliance of banks with applicable income recognition, asset classification and provisioning (IRACP) norms and exceptions were reported by the supervisors as divergences in asset classification / provisioning.” This basically means that RBI was checking for whether banks are recognising bad loans as bad loans.

Indeed, the fact that the bad loans ratio has jumped to 7.6%, tells us that many banks were not recognising bad loans as bad loans, and that anomaly has been corrected. The first step in tackling a problem is to recognise that it exists. The Indian banks, in particular, the public sector banks have now started to do that.

The Financial Stability Report suggests that “under the baseline scenario, the gross non-performing assets ratio [bad loans ratio] may rise to 8.5 per cent by March 2017 from 7.6 per cent in March 2016. If the macro scenarios deteriorate in the future, the gross non-performing assets ratio may further increase to 9.3 per cent.” The point is that the worst is still not over for India’s banks.

Also, this basically means that banks need to be aggressive about recovering their loans. Further, it’s time that the government as the owner of public sector banks, starts forcing the defaulting promoters to give up on their equity.

Nevertheless, the bigger problem still remains. The bigger problem is the fact that the public sector banks continue to remain government owned. As Ruchir Sharma writes in The Rise and Fall of Nations—Ten Rules of Change in the Post Crisis World: “Spend a lot of time in field, and it is all too easy to find evidence that the state is not a competent banker.”

The Indian public sector banks have ended up in trouble more than a few times before. One of the reasons for this is the politicians forcing these banks to lend to crony capitalists. And as long as these banks continue to remain government owned, that risk remains, especially given that it is crony capitalists who ultimately finance the electoral ambitions of India’s politicians.

The column was originally published in Vivek Kaul’s Diary on June 30, 2016

When It Comes to Bad Loans of Banks, Nothing is as It Seems

One of the issues that I have been regularly writing about is the bad state of banks in India. The tragedy is that their state continues to get worse as time progresses.

As on September 30, 2015, the bad loans of the banking system amounted to 5.1% of the total loans given by banks. The number was at 4.6% as on March 31, 2015. This is a huge jump of 50 basis points in a short period of just six months. One basis point is one hundredth of a percentage.

The trouble is that even the bad loans number of 5.1% of total loans, may not be the right number. This is primarily because over the years the Indian banks, in particular public sector banks, seem to have mastered the art of not recognising a bad loan as a bad loan. They have turned the practice of kicking the can down the road, to an art form.

Banks have used various methods to delay the recognition of bad loans and this has made balance sheets of banks more opaque. As Suresh Ganapathy and Sameer Bhise of Macquarie Research write in a recent research note titled Apocalypse Now: “The biggest problem that we now have with the Indian banking industry is that various regulatory forbearance techniques like restructuring (for under-construction infra and long term projects), 5:25 refinancing, SDR (strategic debt restructuring), NPL sales to ARCs (asset reconstruction companies) etc., are making the balance sheets of banks more opaque.

Forbearance essentially means “holding back”. In the context of banking it means that the bank gives more time/better terms to the borrower to repay the loan, among other things. This could mean extending the term of the loan, lowering the interest or even postponing the repayment of the principal of the loan for a few years. Such loans are also referred to as restructured loans.

These options were supposed to be used sparingly. Nevertheless, banks in general and public sector banks in particular have massively abused these options over the years, in order to postpone the recognition of bad loans.

The bad loans of public sector banks stand at 6.2% of total loans, as on September 30, 2015. The restructured loans on the other hand stand at 7.9% of total loans. For the system as a whole, the number stands at 6%, which is higher than total bad loans, which stand at 5.1% of total loans.

The trouble is that many of the loans which were restructured in the years gone by have been defaulted on. As mentioned earlier one of the popular methods of restructuring a loan is to give the borrower a moratorium of few years on the repayment of the principal amount of the loan. The idea is that in that period the company will manage to set its business right and be in a position to start repaying the loan.

But that hasn’t happened. The restructured loans have been turning into bad loans. Ganpathy and Bhise of Macquarie Research estimate that the failure rate of restructured loans has jumped from 24% to 41%, over the last two years. “Many of these loans have come out of their principal moratorium and started defaulting,” the analysts point out.

What such a large default rate clearly tells us is that many of these loans should not have been restructured in the first place. As a November 2014 editorial in the Mint newspaper points out: “The decision to restructure a loan was supposed to be a technical one, taking into account the viability of the borrower. But in case of government banks, the decision to restructure has often been influenced by political considerations, and has depended on the clout of the concerned promoters.” The restructured loans now being defaulted on would have been restructured before the Narendra Modi government came to power in May 2014.

The situation is likely to get worse given that around half of the restructured loans were restructured over the last two years. Hence, companies have a moratorium on principal repayments for a period of two years. Once they start coming out of this moratorium, the loan defaults will go up.

Over and above this many companies continue to remain highly leveraged, that is they have significantly more debt on their books in comparison to their equity. In fact, as the Financial Stability Report released by the Reserve Bank of India(RBI) in December 2015 points out: “The proportion of companies among the leveraged companies with debt equity ratio of >=3 (termed as ‘highly leveraged’ companies) increased from 13.6 per cent in September 2014 to 15.3 per cent in September 2015, while the share of debt of these companies in the total debt increased from 22.9 to 24.9 per cent.”

This has happened because banks have lent more money to companies which are already in trouble and not in a position to repay their loans. As Parag Jariwala and Vikesh Mehta of Religaire Institutional Research write in a research note titled SDR: A band-aid for a bullet wound: “Bank funding to stressed corporates has gone up in the last 2-3 years and most of it is towards funding additional working capital requirement, loss funding and interest accruals (not paid). This will translate into large and bulky credit cost for banks if these accounts slip into non-performing assets [bad loans].

Also, there is the problem of large borrowers. As Jariwala and Mehta point out: “The RBI’s analysis shows that stressed assets [bad loans + restructured assets] as a proportion of total loans to large corporates have gone up from 13.8% in Mar’15 to 15.5% in Sep’15.”

Further, what is worrying is that banks are still to recognise many of these loans as bad loans. As Ganpathy and Bhise point out: “The issue is that some of these large corporate groups have already been downgraded to default by rating agencies. Since banks have a 90-day window to classify as non-performing loans plus have other regulatory forbearance techniques like restructuring (still can be done for underconstruction projects) and 5:25 refinancing, these assets are not being shown as non-performing loans on the books.”

The analysts estimate that large borrowers form around 11-12% of total bank loans and roughly 15% of these loans are likely to turn into bad loans over the years.

Once these factors are taken into account, Ganpathy and Bhise feel that “potentially 16-18% of the loans will attract higher provisions and/or see write-offs over the next 3-4 years.” This means nearly one-sixth of bank loans can still go bad. And that is a huge number.

Hence, when it comes to bank loans, nothing is as it seems.

Stay tuned!

The column originally appeared in the Vivek Kaul Diary on January 21, 2016

In 2016, banks will continue to kick the bad loans can down the road

In June 2015, the Reserve Bank of India(RBI) came with the strategic debt restructuring(SDR) scheme. This scheme allows the banks to convert a part of the debt owed to them by corporates into equity and is actively being used to kick the bad loans can down the road.

As the RBI notification on the SDR scheme pointed out: It has been observed that in many cases of restructuring of accounts, borrower companies are not able to come out of stress due to operational/ managerial inefficiencies despite substantial sacrifices made by the lending banks. In such cases, change of ownership will be a preferred option.”

Under the corporate debt restructuring scheme banks restructured loans by lowering the interest rate charged to the borrower or the borrower was given more time to repay the loan i.e. the tenure of the loan was increased, among other things.
But the restructuring did not help with a good portion of the restructured loans between 2011 and 2014, turning into bad loans. Crisil Research puts the number at 40%.

Further, as Parag Jariwala and Vikesh Mehta of Religaire Institutional Research write in a research note titled SDR: A band-aid for a bullet wound: “Indian banks went on a massive restructuring spree over 2012-2013 and 2013-2014. The corporate debt restructuring (CDR) cell received 530 cases till March 2015 from banks looking to restructure debt aggregating to Rs 4 lakh crore without classifying these accounts as NPAs.”

But this did not work. As Jariwala and Mehta point out: “On the whole, the success of CDR packages in rehabilitating stressed assets remains in question – the failure rate for the above restructured cases has increased to ~36% in September 2015 from 24% in September 2013. Out of the 530 cases received, close to 190 cases aggregating to Rs 70,000 crore have exited CDR due to repayment failures.” Most of these failures have been with regard to loans where banks had entered into a moratorium of two years with corporates, for repayment of principal amount of the loan.

One of the reasons for the failure of CDR has been the lack of interest and cooperation from the promoters who had taken on bank loans. Their intention has been to default on the bank loans they have taken on. SDR has been initiated to address this problem.  As Ashish Gupta, Prashant Kumar and Kush Shah of Credit Suisse write in a research note titled Failed CDR now SDR: “SDR allows banks to convert part of their debt to equity to take controlling stake (at least 51%) in the stressed company and thereby, banks can effect change in ownership wherever existing management is not performing. This gives banks significant power while dealing with non-performing or non-cooperating promoters.”

The idea with SDR is to convert the weak bank debt into equity and then sell the equity to a new promoter, and recover the money owed to the banks by the corporate. As the RBI Annual Report for 2014-2015 points out: “RBI and SEBI have together allowed banks to write in clauses that allow banks to convert loans to equity in case the project gets stressed again. Not only will such Strategic Debt Restructuring give creditors some upside, in return for reducing the project’s debt, it can also give them the control needed to redeploy the asset (say with a more effective promoter).”

SDR allows banks to postpone asset classification of a loan for a period of 18 months. This means that if a loan is in the process of turning into a bad loan and the bank has converted that into equity, it does not need to categorise that as a bad loan.

Also, the equity shares post conversion are exempt from following the “mark to market” rule. This means if the share price of the company falls below the price at which the debt was converted into equity, the bank does not need to book the difference as a loss during the 18-month period.

SDR essentially gives a bank (actually to the consortium of banks to whom the money is owed by the corporate, and which is referred to as joint lenders’ forum) a period of 18 months to look for a buyer for the company which they have taken over.

The question is will it allow banks to recover the loans that they have given to corporates and which are now in a risky territory? As the Credit Suisse analysts point out: “There has been a significant pick-up in activities under the SDR route over the past few months, with the banks invoking SDR in case of nine accounts with debt of ~Rs57,000 crore (~1% of system loans,). Majority of these accounts have been restructured earlier and have failed to achieve the targets set during the restructuring. Also, with their restructuring moratoriums now ending many would have been on the verge of turning non-performing assets.”

What does this mean? It means banks have tried rescuing the loans they had given to corporates by restructuring them in the past. And they have failed at it. Now these restructured loans are being put through strategic debt restructuring and being converted into equity. If the option of strategic debt restructuring wasn’t available to banks, they would have had to possibly recognise these loans as bad loans.

The Religaire analysts estimate that banks will “end up refinancing 30-40 ailing accounts under the scheme in the next one year, thus postponing non-performing assets [bad loans] recognition of Rs 1.5 lakh crore.”

The other option before banks is to sell these loans to asset restructuring companies for a loss, and then account for that loss over a period of two years. But given that they have the option of postponing any losses through the SDR route, they are more likely to take that route.

What is also interesting is that banks need to keep the companies in which they have converted their debt into equity through the SDR route, running, until they are able to find buyers for them. This means that the lending to these companies can’t completely stop.

Hence, banks will have to provide working capital finance to these companies as well as  fresh loans, so that these companies can continue to pay interest on their remaining debt.

As the Religaire analysts write: “It is important for lenders to keep companies under SDR running until they find new buyers. Banks are thus likely to continue funding interest costs and working capital during the 18-month SDR window. This includes meeting guarantees invoked by state governments or developers for delayed project completion. We assume that debt levels (including interest) will rise ~20% during this period.”

To conclude, as I keep saying things are not looking good for Indian banks.

The column originally appeared on the Vivek Kaul’s Diary on January 7, 2016